It’s a Tuesday night in Bermondsey – South London – as I meander down the quiet streets seeking out the fluorescent glow of the green astroturfed cage. The air is crisp and silent as I stumble upon the pitch where I would meet the South London Laces, a women’s 11-a-side team who play in the 7th tier of the women’s football league.
This is a closed training session with the core team members that devote their time week in and week out to play alongside their friends and wear the Laces badge with honour. They have just won the last four games on the bounce and everyone is in high spirits. The coach is back from holiday, so everyone is generally excited to see each other and not complaining too much about the fact it’s bitterly cold.
Before everybody else arrived, Aimee – a member of the team – tells me that they recently attempted an open training session, which saw a response that blew them away. Emily, the Co-Founder furtherly explains to me that putting on open training sessions has meant that since last summer they have grown from having one team, to two, and now they’re looking to have four 11-a-side teams next season.
Naturally, when talking about the growth of the women’s game, the conversation flows into the Lionesses' success last summer and Emily tells me that it’s definitely had an impact at a grassroots level. “The tournament inspired lots of people to play. For some people it was a catalyst to even just sending a message asking if they are ok to come and play or telling us they used to play as a kid at school and they want to give it a go again - this is major as we have found that some players have previously felt excluded from football or never had the opportunity to join a club or kick a ball,” she explains.
The possibilities of growth in women’s football have become clear since the women's EURO took place last summer. “We had a surge of enquiries during the tournament and the World Cup this summer is another great opportunity to keep football in the spotlight. We just need to make sure there is the infrastructure in place to support the widespread growth of the game (eg safe, affordable and accessible places to play, funding, coaches etc).”
I ask a few of the team members what their thoughts on the future of the women’s game are:
“For me, the best future for women’s football and involvement in the game is just for little girls knowing they can achieve at any level they wish to succeed at. Not just on the pitch but coaching, back-room staff, media broadcasting, the lot! Growing up, I never had many footballing idols or role models in the women’s game that I could inspire to be like when I was older, which was a reason why I stopped playing when I was a teen. There were no serious career aspirations for me. I hope that after the recent success in English football with the Euros win and the continued progression we see in the game, young girls around the country can feel like they can play and enjoy football at any level without discrimination or prejudice.”
"It’s gonna be huge! I’m hoping the world is recognising the value of getting young girls to play football from an early age and there are going to be as many opportunities as possible to get women and non-binary players playing at grassroots and professional levels. I think the recent Euros and Women’s World Cup fever is just the beginning."
"I think the future of women’s football is bright after the success of the Lionesses in 2022. We have to thank them hugely for finally putting women’s football on the map. The future needs to target young girls coming through schools to provide them with equal opportunities to play football. When I was at school, I was never allowed to play football and it was only through forcing it with my PE department that I was allowed to play with the boys, I was the only girl. Giving the opportunity to girls from a young age means it is seen as a sport for all and not a sport for boys meaning fewer girls are likely to drop out and our talent pool increases."
For the Laces, what started out as 4 players has grown into a huge community that acts as a safe space for women and non-binary players. “We try to foster a sense of community and belonging. One of our biggest success measures is if people see the friends they make at Laces outside of football. The environment we create for players is also a top priority, we want players to feel like SLL is a safe environment where they can be their authentic selves as well as really enjoy playing football and learning about the game,” says Beth, also a Co-Founder.
For players that are just starting out playing football, or for the more advanced players, SLL is open for everyone to come down and play with the team. As Beth mentions, “If we aren’t the club for you there are loads of incredible clubs doing brilliant things around London. We don’t see it as a competition between us and other clubs for players, we just want people to play in the right environment for them, make friends and have fun playing the game we all love.”
For them, it’s just as much about having strong connections through the community they’ve built, as much as it is about developing them as players. “This year is about responding to players' needs and evolving, creating opportunities on and off the pitch and ensuring the community is at the heart of what we do!” says Emily.
“We want our players to have lots of opportunities to play (beyond training) in whatever format they want, at the minute this is looking like making a jump from two to potentially four 11-a-side teams, which is huge! We want to engage in more small-sided football and recruit some more incredible coaches to help us run the teams and training sessions. We are welcoming new players every week but it will be about doing what we can do really well using what space we currently have to give players a great football experience in a really good environment.”
Watching the Laces play as i'm stood watching from the sidelines, you can really see how much development has gone into the team. “I’d say I'm a different player at this club than anywhere else I’ve played. SLL has helped me develop technically, play competitively every weekend, plus make loads of new friends,” explains Lydia.
“It’s such a supportive environment that makes you want to improve, to work as hard as possible at training and in games so you can put a shift in for your teammates and get some results. It's such a positive atmosphere where you're allowed to be creative, make mistakes, and try new things - you're only going to hear constructive and positive things from the sidelines. Laces show that you can play competitive football at a good standard and it still be a really fun, kind and supportive place to be where anyone can feel welcome and valued.”
If you want to find more information about the South London Laces then head over to their website.